By using quick-change tooling and machining fixtures, metalworking shops can reduce the amount of time spent swapping out worn or broken tools, or installing new work-holding fixtures.
Some of the biggest productivity-killers for metalworking operations are the time it takes to set up batches, measure machine components, set the tools, change out worn tools and switch out components.
While all necessary, these steps generally reduce machine use and hurt overall plant productivity. To offset these challenges, more companies are using quick-change tooling and machining fixtures to help them work faster and more efficiently with less human intervention.
“Whether working with static or live tools, anytime you change a tool, you’re not making parts,” Holly B. Martin writes in Cutting Tool Engineering. “That makes a quick-change tooling system—in which the changeover time is reduced to mere seconds—worth consideration.”
What Is Quick-Change Tooling and Machine Fixturing?
Quick-change tooling allows the machine operator to use and switch out consumable, modular tooling that may feature a quick-release screw, for instance. This type of tooling requires no additional setup, and simply requires the operator to remove the current tool and install its replacement within 30 seconds or less (versus the 3-5 minutes that it would typically take to handle the task).
“This enables the quick changeover to a new tool,” says Justin Hagerty, a Grainger Metalworking Specialist, “which is loaded, preset and ready to use.”
A similar approach is used with fixturing, or the work-holding device that securely locates and supports the work, ensuring that all parts produced using the fixture will maintain conformity and interchangeability. For example, Grainger offers work-holding vises that enable quick change-outs and help minimize machine downtime.
Using quick-change machine fixturing, a machine shop worker who is making repetitive parts would have multiple fixtures close at hand and ready to use. “That way, when the machine cycle is completed,” says Hagerty, “the switch-out of the parts is quick, easy and repetitive.”
Improving Equipment Efficiency
One of the critical measurements of machine shop productivity has always been equipment uptime, and improvements in recent years mean that result may make a difference of just a few minutes or even seconds. “In large-volume machining operations making long runs of metal or composite parts,” American Machinist points out, “the time involved in tool changes alone can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.”
Focused on making quick tool changes while also improving tooling life, production machining operations and job shops are incorporating more quick-change strategies into their operations. “Not only are the savings in setup and changeover time increasingly valuable to them,” American Machinist adds, “but the flexibility and stability of the quick-change system also are important—as is the potential for reduced capital investments in tooling.”
Quick-change tooling also helps improve tooling life—an ongoing priority for machine shops that not only want to save time on setup and change-over, but also reduce their capital investments in tooling. This type of tooling also adds a new layer of safety for workers, who have to be especially careful when handling sharp cutting tools, and particularly when working under tight time constraints.
Making the Shift
According to Hagerty, making the switch to quick-change tooling and fixturing usually requires a mindset shift—both on the company’s and the employee’s part. While existing operations may be able to produce a certain number of products within a certain timeframe, adding one or more quick-change setups to the equation nearly always produces better results.
“Every time you put a new part in a machine, [you could have] parts preloaded in [a] quick-change fixture situated nearby, ready to pop in place with a quick lock system,” says Hagerty. “The fixtures [or] pallets could be removed and replaced in 10% of the time that [it] would take someone to handle that task manually with a part change out.”
To help companies achieve these “wins,” Hagerty and the other Grainger metalworking specialists have set up pallet systems where parts are loaded on the pallets while the machine is still running the previous cycle of parts. “This vastly streamlines the loading and unloading process,” he says, “while dramatically reducing the amount of time it would take to manually handle the part change out.”
Seeking Better Uptime and Faster Throughputs
In most cases, the metalworking shops with the highest productivity rates see the biggest benefits from their quick-change strategies. The higher machine uptimes are the most impressive results that companies see from their investments. “The more these shops produce,” Hagerty explains, “the faster they’ll see a return on investment (ROI) from their quick-change tooling and fixturing.”
At least part of that ROI comes from higher levels of visibility that today’s state-of-the-art quick-change equipment provides. By monitoring the processes on each machine, supervisors equipped with mobile devices and an app can literally see how much time the tooling and fixturing switch-outs are taking. They can then make good production and labor decisions based on that data.
“Quick-change tooling is a trend that a lot more companies are moving toward as the need for better uptime and throughput continues to climb,” says Hagerty. “It has to be the right fit for the operation in question, but when it works it truly does increase machine uptime while boosting a company’s overall production rates.”
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